"It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6," Caan's family shared on Twitter. "The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time."
Caan was born on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx and raised in Queens. He discovered his love of acting while a student at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and ultimately left before graduating to study at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. While at Hofstra, Caan met Francis Ford Coppola.
In 1969, Caan, who had been working professionally for nearly a decade and had appeared in films such as Lady in a Cage (1964) and the Howard Hawks Western El Dorado (1966), was cast by Coppola in the drama, The Rain People. It would mark the first collaboration between the director and actor, who would soon reunite for 1972's The Godfather.
Based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, Caan played Santino "Sonny" Corleone, the eldest son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). The movie was a sensation upon its release, setting box office records and making stars out of its cast and director. The Godfather earned 10 Oscars nominations at the 45th Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
With the film recently celebrating its 50th anniversary, Robert Duvall, who co-starred as adopted son Tom Hagen, consigliere and lawyer of the Corleone family, and earned a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination alongside Caan, reflected on working with the actor.
"A very quick guy. Very clever. He’d tell a joke, and it would take Marlon Brando two or three seconds to get it. But he liked Jimmy because he was great on the set and had a lot of fun," Duvall told A.frame. "When Jimmy came in one day for the shooting of The Godfather Part II, we were running late for lunch. So, he went to a restaurant, grabbed some pita bread, and put the hottest pepper he could find in that sandwich — and came in and held it up. He knew what would happen. Coppola reached for it and took a bite, then said, 'You sons of b*****s!'"
Caan reprised his role as Sonny for a cameo appearance in 1974's The Godfather Part II, and later played an army platoon sergeant in the 1987 Coppola war drama Gardens of Stone. They were set to collaborate once again on Coppola's next project, his longtime passion project Megalopolis, which was slated to begin filming this year.
“Jimmy was someone who stretched through my life longer and closer than any motion picture figure I've ever known," Coppola said in a statement. "From those earlier times working together on The Rain People, and throughout all the milestones of my life, his films and the many great roles he played will never be forgotten. He will always be my old friend from Sunnyside, my collaborator, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known."
Outside of his work with Coppola, Caan had memorable turns as real-life Chicago Bears player Brian Piccolo in Brian's Song (1971), a master safecracker in Michael Mann's Thief (1981), the obsessed-over author Paul Sheldon in Rob Reiner's Misery (1990), and as Buddy the Elf's biological father in Jon Favreau's Elf (2003).
Still, The Godfather remains the crown jewel of his decades-long career. "I'm happy there's something they can remember about me," Caan told Collider earlier this year. "I'm very proud of it, and I'm very proud of Francis... If you get people together that like one another and genuinely like each other and have a good time, invariably the movie is good and better. And I think audiences can tell that they like each other while they're watching the film. Do you know what I mean? And I think it makes it a better film. We all liked each other and had a great time."
Caan is survived by his five children, Tara, Scott, Alexander, James Jr. and Jacob.